Good COP, Bad COP on Global Climate Accord

The hard-fought Paris agreement is a huge improvement over the failed Kyoto Protocol. But by itself, it won’t be enough to forestall rising temperatures or looming disasters.


The ambitious, inclusive, and creative accord to finally come to grips with the threat of climate change brokered in Paris over the weekend is exactly what the world needed — in 1997.

As it stands though, for all the positive aspects of the Paris agreement, most energy and climate experts say it does not actually chart a path to stopping rising greenhouse gas emissions, nor will it keep the global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius, nor will it forestall the nastier impacts of a warming planet that are already baked into the system, from rising seas to melting icecaps. Instead, the Paris agreement represents the culmination of Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s famous maxim: “Politics is the art of the possible.”

To avoid the mistakes that plagued the failed 1997 Kyoto climate pact and get the whole world — developed and developing countries alike — to sign off on a deal, negotiators opted for a nonbinding, unenforceable, voluntary approach. That is both the strength and the potential weakness of the Paris agreement, formally known as the 21st Conference of the Parties, or COP21.

As an international agreement among more than 180 countries with very different levels of wealth, carbon emissions, and development goals, Paris is a clear success. As a policy blueprint to actually forestall the dangers posed by growing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and rising temperatures, it represents little more than a starting point, decades after scientists and policymakers began grappling with the urgent need to rein in carbon emissions.

The Paris agreement has plenty in it to cheer about, as world leaders such as U.S. President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did over the weekend. For starters, it includes nearly everybody, potentially burying the old division between rich countries, which were expected to shoulder nearly all the burden, and developing countries that were free to pursue growth at all costs.

That’s important both politically and practically. In the past, developed countries like the United States, Japan, and members of the European Union were the only ones forced to curb emissions, while developing countries like China and India became some of the biggest global polluters. That became a political cudgel, especially in the United States, where Republican lawmakers have repeatedly tried to torpedo any U.S. climate action as long as China is still building coal plants.

Practically, Paris is a big change from Kyoto because it is a global accord that is actually global. Kyoto ended up covering only about 14 percent of the world’s emissions, while the Paris agreement covers about 96 percent of global carbon emissions.

“That’s the most important aspect. It’s literally a foundation — before, they were trying to build a 70-story office tower on a tiny foundation,” said Robert Stavins, an environmental economist and director of Harvard University’s Project on Climate Agreements. “Now, maybe we’re back down to ground level, but the foundation is a whole square block, so it’s really night and day.”

And the Paris pact’s ambitions don’t end with the initial pledges. One of the accord’s most important points is the agreement for countries to revisit their climate goals every five years, starting in 2020. That will hopefully lead countries to ratchet up their ambitions as they get richer and as cleaner technologies become more available and more affordable.

Especially noteworthy, in contrast to the top-down, detailed mandates in the Kyoto Protocol, is the way that Paris stealthily opens the door for market forces to start driving change in the world’s energy sector, the main source of carbon emissions. The Paris agreement avoids using the word “market,” which is anathema to a handful of left-leaning countries, but it will allow the link-up of different national climate change programs, whether California’s carbon market, or Obama’s plan to clean up the electricity sector, or China’s goal of creating a nationwide carbon-trading platform.

“At first blush, it looks like we’ve really moved away from markets because the Kyoto Protocol had all these detailed market provisions,” said Nathaniel Keohane, vice president for global climate at the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group. “In fact, the agreement has a very strong signal in favor of markets, and it’s going to be exactly what carbon markets will need to grow and prosper going forward.”

That could send the kinds of signals the energy sector needs to start investing trillions of dollars in low-carbon energy, like wind and solar power, rather than continuing to finance dirty fuels like coal and oil. Stavins predicted that linking those national approaches could cut in half the economic cost of tackling climate change.

But that doesn’t mean that Paris is a climate change panacea. The national action pledges made so far — which cover each country’s goals for climate action over the next decade — don’t add up to nearly enough emissions reduction to avoid dangerous increases in global temperatures.

Estimates vary, but most analyses conclude that the separate national pledges made to date would, at best, still allow temperatures to rise by about 3 degrees Celsius. Even if countries ramp up their ambitions after 2030, the kinds of policies in place now would still add up to a rise of about 2.7 degrees Celsius, said Niklas Höhne of the NewClimate Institute in Cologne, Germany.

That’s better than cataclysmic visions of a 4- or 6-degree temperature increase that would happen if the world did nothing, but it’s far short of the Paris accord’s official goal of keeping temperatures “well below” 2 degrees through the end of the century — let alone Paris’s ultimate target of limiting the increase to 1.5 degrees.

At the same time, the bottom-up approach embraced in Paris, where each country pledges to do what it can, when it can, could well unravel as climate objectives collide with other imperatives, such as development.

Indeed, Indian energy officials reiterated Monday — just days after Modi praised the Paris agreement — that they will continue to rely on coal to power their economic transformation because “there are no other alternatives available.” China has aggressively moved to clean up its dirty energy sector, and its carbon emissions are on track to stop growing in the next decade. But even Chinese negotiators in Paris fought tooth and nail against requirements for regular reporting on carbon emissions and international checks on whether their pledges are being implemented.

Perhaps more important, plenty of the worst impacts of climate change are already baked into the system, even if the whole world managed to somehow halt carbon emissions immediately. The United Nations climate change panel concluded in its most recent assessment that many climate impacts are simply “irreversible on human time scales.”

Sea levels are rising at ever-faster rates and will continue to rise even after 2100, regardless of what happens now. Some big chunks of ice, like the West Antarctic ice sheet, appear to have passed the point of no return and will disappear no matter what steps are taken. Oceans have become increasingly acidic, thanks to rising carbon concentrations, and acidification will likely intensify irrespective of any drastic changes the world makes today.

That’s a big reason why even climate experts who praise the accord stress that it is just a starting point, not the culmination, of an arduous and uncertain journey.

“Whether the agreement itself is ultimately a success is something that we’re only going to know after 10, 20, or even 30 years, looking back on it,” Stavins said.

Photo credit: CHRISTIAN OSTROSKY/Flickr

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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